Friday, September 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Packers' Aaron Rodgers stays close to his hometown, but not his family

CHICO, Calif. — As flood advisories were issued here on Jan. 8, patrons at the End Zone Bar & Grill — who braved slick, debris-strewn roads to watch an NFL playoff game together — had something more distressing on their minds. The bar's big-screen TVs showed the Packers' offense, commanded by Aaron Rodgers, Chico's native son and favorite quarterback, clogging like a storm drain.

The fans tried to cajole the quarterback as the Packers punted on their first five possessions against the Giants in their wild-card playoff game. It was never "Come on, No. 12" or "Let's go, Rodgers." It was always Aaron, as in "Aaron, this is not your first rodeo. Let's make a first down."

The patrons were on a first-name basis with Rodgers because many attended school with him, or have children who were his classmates, or have a family member receiving chiropractic treatment from Rodgers' father. Even those who weren't born when Rodgers was a scrawny, 5-foot-3-inch high school freshman feel as though they know him; he made an impression on the teenagers on Pleasant Valley High School's newly crowned state championship football squad by delivering a pep talk by video that they watched before they won a state title in December.

It seems everyone in this college town of about 88,000 has some connection to Rodgers, a two-time most valuable player in the NFL and the middle of three sons of Ed and Darla Rodgers, graduates of California State University, Chico. When Rodgers rebounded from a 4-for-11 start against the Giants to complete 21 of his final 29 passes in the Packers' 38-13 victory, the bar pulsed with pride.

Rodgers' celebrity is a source of unmitigated joy everywhere here except in what used to be his innermost circle.

A rift in the Rodgers family became public fodder when Aaron's younger brother, Jordan, appeared as a contestant on the reality TV show The Bachelorette. While romancing the show's star, JoJo Fletcher, Jordan told her that she probably would not meet Aaron on a coming visit to Chico, because the quarterback had distanced himself from his kin.

With Jordan's comments, the spotlight burned brighter on a family still adapting to Rodgers' sky-high profile, which soared after the Packers' Super Bowl victory in February 2011 and the start of his relationship with actor Olivia Munn in 2014.

"One in the news is enough for us," Rodgers' father said. He spoke at his office on the Monday morning after the Packers beat the Giants, during a break between patients, looking down at his hands, clasping and unclasping them.

"Fame can change things," he added.

Ed Rodgers described as accurate an article the website Bleacher Report published in November that revealed, among other things, that Rodgers had not spoken to his family since the end of 2014, a few months after he began dating Munn, who has appeared on The Daily Show on Comedy Central, in The Newsroom on HBO and in the film X-Men: Apocalypse.

Asked if there had been any thaw in their relationship, Rodgers' father said, "It's hard to tell sometimes."

In Wisconsin, Rodgers politely declined to discuss the rift in the days leading up to Sunday's NFC division game against the Cowboys, which the Packers won to advance to next weekend's NFC title game.

"I just don't think it's appropriate talking about family stuff publicly," he said Thursday at the Packers' practice facility. Asked if his brother Jordan would be at the game on Sunday, Rodgers replied: "I don't know. I really don't."

But even as Rodgers keeps his distance from his family, he maintains close ties to his hometown. He stays in touch with Craig Rigsbee, a Chico resident and the athletic director at Butte College, a community college about 25 miles outside town. Rigsbee coached the football team when Rodgers played at Butte for one season before he moved onto Division I football at the Cal.

Rigsbee watched the Packers' game against the Giants with friends at home in his "fan cave," with a full bar and a big-screen television with surround sound. In another room hang a half-dozen Packers jerseys signed, sealed and delivered by Rodgers to be auctioned off to raise money for the school's athletic fund.

Rigsbee said he last saw Rodgers in July when he watched him play in a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Calif.

A friend in Chico who has Cowboys season tickets offered Rigsbee a seat for Sunday's game, but he had to turn it down. This weekend was the college's main athletic department fundraiser, the Crab Feed, where at least one of the signed Rodgers jerseys in his closet was auctioned off.

Rigsbee knows that if he did show up at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Rodgers would have welcomed him warmly. "Everything I've asked him to do, he's done," Rigsbee said. "He's been really gracious to us."

Rigsbee — whose son Jordan followed Rodgers to Cal and is an offensive lineman for the Carolina Panthers — has been to several Packers games over the years as Rodgers' guest, but none recently by his own choice.

After Rodgers led Green Bay past the Steelers in the Super Bowl six years ago, the river of celebrity rose so high, so fast, it threatened to suffocate Rodgers, said Rigsbee, who backed away, lest he get pulled into its current.

"The problem when someone achieves a level of fame like Aaron has is that it makes you more guarded, because people will try to play off the people around him to gain access," Rigsbee said. "I can't tell you how many companies have called me and said, 'We'll give you this or that, and oh, could we just go to dinner with Aaron.' Or people will ask me if I can get him to sign this or that."

He recalled dining out with Rodgers in Chico the spring after the Packers' Super Bowl victory.

A woman approached their table and started bowing in an "I'm not worthy" gesture and gushing that Rodgers was the greatest. Rigsbee said Rodgers offered to sign a napkin for her if she would stop making a fuss over him. He told her that she was making him uncomfortable.

As Rigsbee recalled, Rodgers said, "For all you know, I could be the biggest creep in the world."

When Rigsbee was recruiting Rodgers to Butte, he sat in the family's home, then located a couple of cul-de-sacs from his, and ate chocolate chip cookies baked by Darla Rodgers. He still has lunch on occasion with Rodgers' father. When he is around the couple, whom he described as "really, really nice, good-hearted people," he avoids asking about Aaron. "It's not my place," he said. "I'm very supportive of both Aaron and his family."

Mark Cooley, who took over as the Pleasant Valley High football coach in 2012, was grateful for the generosity of Rodgers and his father, who together bought 100 new helmets for the Vikings before Cooley's first season.

Four years later, as Cooley guided Pleasant Valley to an overtime win against St. Anthony of Long Beach in the state 4-A title game, Rodgers used his smartphone to keep track from a hotel room in Chicago, where the Packers would beat the Bears the next day.

Rodgers helped pay for the team's travel to the game. He contacted Cooley after one of his 2.82 million Twitter followers alerted him to a fundraising campaign for the trip to Long Beach. Rodgers also surprised Cooley by sending the inspirational video.

"The kids were in awe that he knew what they were doing and took the time to acknowledge it," Cooley said.

Ed Rodgers said he and his wife were heartened to hear of their son's show of support for his high school alma mater.

"It's like the old Aaron, really," his father said.

The circumstances in which the family's private business became a national story were "weird," Ed Rodgers acknowledged. "Airing public laundry is not what I would have chosen," he added.

But he said he was not upset that it had happened. "It's good to have it all come out," he said.

It has been easier in some ways, he said, since The Bachelorette, which included a scene at the Rodgers home in Chico of Jordan and Fletcher dining at a table with Ed, Darla and their oldest son, Luke, and two empty chairs reserved for Rodgers and Munn.

Ed Rodgers said he no longer had to brace himself for the inevitable questions from his patients first thing Monday morning about how he managed to get back for a morning appointment when his son played two or three time zones away the day before.

Now the people whose pain he is relieving reciprocate by not inquiring about Aaron. And when they do, Rodgers' father tends to keep his answers short.

"It's complicated," he said. He spoke haltingly, but hopefully, adding, "We're all hoping for the best."

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